Survey: FOIA Workers Need $$$, Tech

Federal employees who are responsible for administering the Freedom of Information Act say their offices are too short-staffed, underfunded and technologically inept to process requests as expeditiously as the White House wants, according to a survey conducted by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Federal employees who are responsible for administering the Freedom of Information Act say their offices are too short-staffed, underfunded and technologically inept to process requests as expeditiously as the White House wants, according to a survey conducted by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The day after taking office, President Obama issued a policy memo telling agency heads to err on the side of disclosure when reviewing requests for federal records and to use modern technology when informing citizens about the government's work.

CREW's findings stem from answers to an online questionnaire circulated in May among hundreds of FOIA professionals in the federal government. The study notes the results are not scientific or statistically valid.

The organization, a frequent FOIA requestor and litigator, received 363 partial responses and 259 completed questionnaires.

In March 2009, Attorney General Holder released guidelines reiterating Obama's message and prescribing specific actions to improve FOIA. He said agencies should be proactive in systematically posting information online before anyone requests it.

Since Holder laid down the policy, there has been no change in the availability of equipment and technology, according to 73 percent of the respondents in CREW's survey.

Among the (unedited) tech-related complaints --

The big issues are funding, technology and, of course, the inability for people to find things easily. The expectation that agency employees can find things easily is a common misperception. They are not indexed electronically because they do not exist there, or they are some sort of hybrid.

Technology is a problem. Many records are not electronically maintained and cannot easier be converted. Also, programing changes but records management doesn't keep up

Special interest groups are repeatedly using the FOIA process to request voluminous amounts of records. They are justifying receiving the materials for free because they have a electronic distrubution and a web site. The size of the request has no impact on them but it is burdensome to us.

We are a small agency w/a small staff, few requests. Web based access improves everything for requesters and staff. [The agency chief FOIA officer] is encouraging openess, and use of reading room, and backlog reductioin, and process improvement and best practices - however, I don't see anyone providing more money or resources to support "transparency in government". The only change is the public seems to think they will get more and so we have seen an increase in requests, or requests coming back again- overwhelming an already overloaded system.

Appeals and negative news stories only worsen a FOIA professionals workload and the public's attitude that we are hiding info (we are not). If you only knew how hard we work! If records management and proactive disclosures via web sites were a performance requirement for managers, instead of something that employees can choose to do when they have time and inclination, the time to complete FOIA responses would improve.